Tag Archives: bosnia

The Bosnia dilemma: What are the implications of the Homs “humanitarian evacuation” in Syria?

by Rhodri C. Williams

The evacuation of civilians trapped, shelled and nearly starved by the Assad regime’s siege of the center of Homs is an operation that will undoubtedly save many innocent lives. Not incidentally, it is also one of the few areas of concrete progress that appears to have emanated from the Geneva talks between the regime and the opposition, which just entered a laborious second round. But it is hard to avoid a sense of unease about the operation and the signals it sends about the course of the conflict in Syria.

Tellingly, the evacuation deal was rolled out between Geneva I and II, with the opposition apparently caught unawares. This ambiguous start might reasonably be seen as signaling yet another iteration of a high stakes game being played by a discredited regime with its back to the wall. As in the case of last summer’s chemical weapons attack – which made the Assad regime the ‘partner’ in an international effort to dispose of its own illegal weapons – there is a whiff of deliberate atrocities in Homs being used to gain leverage.

Concerns have been expressed on at least three levels. First, the evacuation presents the remaining ‘fighting age’ men trapped in Homs with a Hobson’s choice – remain in the besieged center after the ceasefire expires and continue to face starvation and shelling, or surrender to the tender mercies of the regime’s intelligence forces, who continue to hold some 200 men arrested as they joined the humanitarian exodus from the city. This against the backdrop of continued unresolved questions questions about the fate of men starved out of the Damascus suburb of Mouadamiya last year:

Rebels have rejected offers to evacuate women and children in the past because of concerns, based on experience, about what might happen to men who are left behind. Dozens of men were detained and disappeared after a similar deal made last year in Mouadamiya, near Damascus.

In light of graphic recent evidence that a single detention center in Syria had tortured 11,000 imprisoned men and boys to death, it is hardly surprising that comparisons have been made between the evacuation of Homs and the 1995 fall of Srebrenica in the Bosnian conflict. As in Srebrenica, the means and motive exist. Moreover, the international humanitarian community is caught in a similarly impossible role, trying to protect civilians in a situation where it will not have the power to do more than act as a witness if the regime is determined to seek a final reckoning with its opponents in Homs.

Which leads to the second concern. Continue reading

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Bosnia 2013 – a tale of two pictures

by Rhodri C. Williams

As the ‘Arab uprising’ countries are now learning the hard way, building a better future is a process that can often be expected to last just as long as surviving one’s bad past did. It is a bitter pill for local populations to swallow, particularly in countries like Libya where the euphoria of having slipped the grasp of a seemingly immortal psychopath is being ground down by the dispiriting business of overcoming his legacy. Its a lesson that well-meaning international observers seem to have an even harder time digesting, let alone anticipating (despite the fact that we have all been down this road before and should know by now that there are no shortcuts).

So thats what made the taste of Bosnia’s recent qualification for the World Cup so sweet. After years of stagnant ethnic deadlock, this event seemed like something that in retrospect would be seen as an awakening from a prolonged coma. A pulse had been detected last summer when ordinary citizens finally revolted against a politics of not re-attaching your own nose to spite the other guy’s face, and then had fizzled out as disillusion and ordinary life set back in. Then suddenly, the first stirrings of something big as the Bosnian team crept closer to Brazil, beating Slovakia in September and being rewarded with its unprecedented adoption as ‘our’ team by the staunchly nationalist Glas Srpske.

bosnia_qualifies_for_brazil_world_cup4And then the breakthrough – and talk of a long-overdue ‘national success story‘ – as the ‘Dragons’ swept Lithuania before them and qualified last October. Suddenly, it seemed as if Bosnia would be redefined by pictures like this, an ordinary family celebrating the victory of a highly non-ordinary state. The new Bosnian flag that rumors attributed to an OHR intern with basic photoshop skills – and that wags said looked like the logo on a cereal box – was to flap off to Brazil with all its other more time-honored fellows. The turning of a page at last.

A number of other factors spoke for normalization in Bosnia and perhaps the entire region. Warts and all, the first Bosnian post-war census was completed at around the same time of the qualifying match. Off in Kosovo, a new EULEX head seemed to take a firmer approach to corruption, even as the territory lurched toward shambolic municipal elections that were nevertheless the first ever to be supported by both Pristina and Belgrade. However, it is hard to overstate the horrors that beset the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, and the extent to which they will continue to compete with the fragile new normality in defining the country’s image.    Continue reading

Svaka čast Croatia

by Rhodri C. Williams

And let me say how honored I am that you chose my birthday for accession to the EU! I’ve had a pretty complicated relationship with you in the past, I have to admit. On the positive side, I used to flee to you when the narrow valleys of Bosnia got me feeling fenced in and I needed to pop over that last rise after the Metkovic border crossing and let that view – the burnished expanse of the Adriatic – seep physically into me. We also used to pile out to the north, going hell for leather from Slavonski Brod along the ex-Highway of Brotherhood and Unity, anything just to hit Zagreb before the only Mexican restaurant in the West Balkans announced last call.

Beyond my personal enjoyment of your charms, I was also impressed in a grim way by your ability to stick it out as a small country in a historically tough neighborhood. The sort of existential problems you faced in the 1990s were unlikely anything I could imagine, having grown up in the protected suburban vastnesses of the 1970s US midwest. The problem, in my mind, was not (only) that you didn’t have clean hands (nobody did). The problem was that you couldn’t come clean about it. Of course, nobody else could either, but you, unlike the others, just galumphed right over your historical indiscretions like so many speed bumps on the boulevard to European integration.

So what is my beef? Well, I worked on property restitution in Bosnia. So I watched as the ‘international community’ in Sarajevo turned the screws on the Bosnians until they extended restitution to cover not only all private houses but also all socially owned apartments (with a few fateful exceptions of course). And I watched as the same international community in Zagreb gradually conceded points that we had gone to the wall over in Sarajevo and started to purge terminology like ‘tenancy rights’ from documents like EU accession progress reports.

I also worked on the OSCE and ICHR friend of the court briefs in the ill-fated Blecic case before the European Court of Human Rights, and assisted the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly’s attempt to push for uniform restitution standards in Europe. I marveled both when the ICTY condemned the uncompensated confiscation of 30,000 socially owned apartments as part of a broader plan to remove Serbs from Croatia, and when that ruling fell on a seeming technicality. And I am left to conclude that the relatively prosperous and self-confident Croatian political elite was simply not held to the same rigorous standards still being applied to their poor and less organized cousins in Bosnia.

The bottom line is that the country that declared independence in 1991 had a 12.2% Serb minority while the country that joined the EU today has a 4.4% Serb minority, and that little statistic patches over a lot of ongoing misery and unredressed violations. Now I know its still not an easy time for you what with sliding EU support and all the commentators cracking wise about how you fought your way out of one oppressive, economically troubled confederation twenty years ago only to fling yourself into another today. So I’ll say only this. It is entirely to your credit that you have entered the hallowed precincts of the EU but it is troubling that you did so with a certain number of skeletons clanking around in your luggage.

Of course, one might as easily find fault for this state of affairs in Brussels as in Zagreb. But pressuring countries that are already in to observe such niceties as the Copenhagen criteria and the rule of law is not the EU’s traditional strong suit. In any case, that is nothing that should prevent you from finding that it lies in your own best interest to engage sooner rather than later with your past. And doing so in a clear-eyed way would, at a stroke, remove many of the excuses holding back your EU-aspirant neighbors from doing the same. And maybe leave both the EU and the western Balkans in better shape as a result. So, congratulations, and good luck as part of the European project of building a future worthy of the sacrifices and suffering of the past.

If it’s broke, destroy it? The partition debate arrives in Syria

by Rhodri C. Williams

Almost inevitably in appalling situations like the conflict in Syria, there comes a moment when inhibitions seem to drop among certain sectors of the commentariat and a note of petulant, provocative resignation enters the debate. They can’t live together, goes the standard line, and they have well and truly proved it now. Why should liberals in the West be indulged in their Benetton fantasies? Why spend blood and treasure to preside over the shotgun remarriage of nations so fundamentally unable to tolerate each other’s presence that they engage in fratricide?

The infuriating thing about such ‘partitionist’ arguments is not (only) the curiously visceral satisfaction some commentators seem to take in espousing a vision of humanity unable to accommodate difference by any other means than forced assimilation or strict separation. Nor is it the fact that such arguments tend to rely on speculation about what ordinary people actually want, often in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary. Nor the way that they play into the hands of unprincipled and frequently undemocratic elites and conflict entrepreneurs. It is the fact that they may in some cases be right but for all the wrong reasons.

My first brush with ‘partitionist’ lines of argument came in Bosnia where my initial receptivity to them was challenged not only intuitively (by my unreconstructed persistence in the belief that people can find ways to rub along together) but also structurally (by my job specifically seeking ways to support Bosnians in doing so). However, my best efforts notwithstanding, the partition bandwagon rolled along, perhaps in most raucous form when splitting Bosnia looked like a real option, yet gaily undeterred long after it was clear that partition was neither particularly feasible nor especially desirable.

Perhaps as a result, there was a certain satisfaction in having worked on something as seemingly pollyanna-ish as property restitution in post-conflict Bosnia and seen it succeed. Granted, not everyone returned, but the result was segregation based largely on individual and household choices, rather than partition based on a political sew-up. And, safe in an unprovable negative, I will propose that the brute fact of restitution – the resolution of 200,000 claims that intimately affected many of the families most victimized by the conflict – cannot but have had a calming influence that has helped keep Bosnia’s notorious post-war ethnic politicking from spilling over into new bloodshed.

One can even argue that the pollyannas have been vindicated once again by the recent post-nationalist demonstrations in Bosnia. Perhaps the new generation we have all been going on about so long has now come of age. If this is the case, a new politics could result. Certainly not a politics that transcends nationalism (not even Sweden can manage that), but one that could at least reveal the hollowness at the core of the ‘inevitability’ discourses surrounding partition proposals in places like Bosnia.

Nevertheless, in 2004, the very year that I left Bosnia convinced that partitionism was en route to the dustbin of history, ethnic riots in Kosovo sent carefully orchestrated plans for national reconciliation there into a tailspin. A familiar call and response ensued, with aggrieved international observers eager to wash their hands of the mess and earnest liberal interventionists arguing that the preservation of a multiethnic society was not only possible but necessary.

At that point, my former Bosnia colleagues Marcus Cox and Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Initiative (ESI) were prompted to mount one of the most spirited defenses of ‘post-partitionism’ to date, contrasting the integrity of international efforts to hold places like Bosnia together with the cynicism of an earlier generation of peace agreements in which population transfers were as routine as border demarcations. But in 2004, one year into the US invasion of Iraq, the partition debate had barely begun. Two years later, the festering dispute between Arabs and Kurds over the region surrounding Kirkuk and the spiraling sectarian violence in Baghdad placed partition squarely on the international agenda.

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Bosnia helps itself to a slice of Spring

by Rhodri C. Williams

943462_118337518375548_378523283_aThere has been a lot written about the current ‘Baby-Lution’ in Bosnia by people with  far more current insight than me about what it is all about. For some good examples, see Igor Štiks in Open Democracy here, Florian Bieber here, or Eric Gordy here. And of course, if you want to take a bath in it, there is always the #JMBG hashtag in Twitter.

So at the risk of simply repeating what many others have stated earlier and more eloquently, what a breath of fresh air. What a relief to see before me a line that the old dinosaurs and their inat-politics could no longer cross without provoking an elemental thirst for ordinary politics and ordinary life. Real systemic change may still be a long way off, but a lot of Bosnians have now made a move from thought to action and that is both significant and irrevocable.

For me personally, the current images coming out of Sarajevo and Banja Luka represent a long overdue alignment between the Bosnia I know and the image it projects in the international media. And I find it deeply moving. So let me end by challenging anybody who ever worked and lived in Bosnia not to get a little misty-eyed watching this wonderful clip.

The Yugoslavia Tribunal produces a new conviction and more confusion

by Rhodri C. Williams

Last week, I had the opportunity to join a symposium at the Hugo Valentin Center (HVC) at Uppsala University on the aftermath of the November 2012 Gotovina decision by the Appeals Chamber of the ICTY. Gotovina was the first in a run of three high profile acquittals, of which two (Gotovina and the more recent Perisic) involved defendants previously sentenced to lengthy jail terms by their respective Trial Chambers.

It was a good discussion, which I can summarize briefly. Tomislav Dulić of the HVC opened by contrasting many historians’ acceptance of the now notorious “Brioni transcripts” as establishing the intent of the Croatian Government to expel Serb civilians from the Krajina region in 1995, against the Gotovina Appeals Chamber judges’ reluctance to convict in the face of ambiguities in the recordings.

Mark Klamberg of Stockholm University followed with a cogent legal analysis of Gotovina (available here on his blog). He noted that judicial fact-finding is necessarily narrower than historical fact-finding, both in order to speed the conclusion of cases and secure the stability of their outcomes, but pointed out a number of troubling questions raised by the Gotovina decision, including the peremptory rejection of the Trial Chamber’s finding of a joint criminal enterprise (JCE) to expel the Krajina Serbs based on the collapse of a single element in the case for a JCE (related to mortar targeting).

Roland Kostić (HVC) then presented some of his findings from repeated surveys in Bosnia, noting how the Tribunal’s rather modest efforts to explain itself have long since been marginalized by a torrent of predictable and frequently dogmatic local spin (among other glum statistics, it seems the average Bosnian currently ‘tunes in’ to the ICTY about once a year).

I contributed as well, with a post-mortem of the various post-mortems of Gotovina, et.al., including the current blame debate between those who see a well-earned rebuke to an overreaching and under-informed Del Ponte Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) and those who see the Meron Appeals Chamber as obtusely pedantic at best and politically motivated at worst. The fact that both sides largely agree that the resulting acquittals represent an institutional failure, particularly with regard to the victims of the war, is cold comfort.

All in all, one came away with the impression of an institution that had lost its way, and, being burdened with far too many expectations, looked set to achieve few of them. On the other hand, the crisis may have spurred a trend toward clearer thinking on what the Tribunal really can and should do. Richard Dicker at Human Rights Watch recently pointed out that reconciliation can never be a realistic short-term goal for any institution and deterrence remains elusive, but that international trials nevertheless “can, by honoring victims, rendering justice and imposing punishment on the guilty, demonstrate the rule of law in the communities most affected by the crimes.”

The fundamental importance of restoring civic trust by reaffirming norms subverted by mass atrocities has been a central theme for the current UN Special Rapporteur on transitional justice issues, Pablo de Greiff. A recent post in EJILTalk on the current concentration camp guard trials in Germany by Kai Ambos forcefully underscores this point:

Punishment reconfirms and thus restores the norms which have been broken by the criminal act. Thus, with punishment the law reaffirms itself against its negation, … . In this perspective punishment is supposed to strengthen the society’s trust in legal norms and therefore to ensure that the people act according to the law…. That goes far beyond a mere symbolic effect.… For without the society’s trust in legal norms and of course in the institutions which apply these norms, no state can permanently claim any legitimacy vis-à-vis its society.

So there is still an important job for the ICTY to complete, in other words. However, it is unlikely to happen if the prior OTP and the current Trials Chamber keep conspiring to produce unbroken acquittals. Meanwhile, there seems to be little public soul-searching going on at the Tribunal itself. The institution’s twentieth anniversary passed in near-funereal silence outside the Hague, but was celebrated there with diagrams and speeches that seem to exude damage control. While all involved cited undoubted successes on the part of the Tribunal, there was a sense between the lines of the institution seeking to reassure itself of its importance.

This week, however, the ICTY Trial Chamber pulled off the remarkable feat of creating yet more confusion, and this in the course of a mere 48 hours. Continue reading

That 1990s feeling, or how conflict-related internal displacement never really went away

by Rhodri C. Williams

As we enter a series of twenty year milestones from the meltdown of the former Yugoslavia, it has been a bit too easy for many of us who came of age back then to reflect on internal conflicts – the crucible in which the internal displacement advocacy movement was forged – as a phase we were all moving beyond. Until recently.

Until recently, it was possible to think of conflict displacement as a ‘first wave’, still problematic in the sense that frozen conflicts from the 1990s had entrenched patterns of protracted internal displacement, but no longer of primary concern. With some of the initial nationalist spasms of the post-Cold War thaw exhausted and a practiced UN-led peace-building and mediation response at the ready, it has been easy enough to be lulled by the overall statistics on declining numbers of active internal conflicts.

Moreover, in the wake of the 2004 tsunami and dawning awareness of the effects of climate change, an effective advocacy campaign by then-Rapporteur on Internal Displacement Walter Kälin shifted attention firmly to rights-based responses to a ‘second wave’ of internal displacement, that caused by natural disasters. As reflected in the UN Human Rights Council’s recent undertaking to address internal displacement , the focus on disasters has come to define much of the advocacy in the field, to some degree eclipsing conflict concerns. Meanwhile, a third wave looms as pressure on land and natural resources gives a sharp new edge to the issue of development-induced displacement.

Reading all this, one would be tempted to take some relief in the fact that each new impending crisis appears to be accompanied by changed conditions or improved responses that help to ameliorate the last. If only it were so tidy. While the peaking of sectarian violence in Iraq after 2006 was a wake-up call to the persistence of internal conflict and displacement, it had begun to look like an isolated incident again until recently. However, with Syria now presenting a full-blown ‘human catastrophe’ and Burma accused of  crimes against humanity in Rakhine state, conflict displacement is once again center stage in all its awful glory.

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